IF YOU met Steve Taylor, you would instinctively like him. He might say some things you didn’t agree with; and you’d have to put aside a generous amount of time to hear him out.
These personal impressions are what emerge most strikingly from his compendium of data and reflection. It is a compellingly honesty narrative, exemplified by Taylor’s description of “the mortality of the community I planted and served for nine years”.
In chapter one, Taylor sets out a roadmap of his experience of the Church in many manifestations. It is well supplied with references to interviews, publications, diagrams, grid, and poetry and material on the internet. Rowan Williams, Gerard Manley Hopkins, and Julian of Norwich feature prominently, alongside references to the scriptures.
Although Taylor writes as a Baptist pastor from New Zealand, the greater part of this work comes from his research into Fresh Expressions in Britain.
My overwhelming reaction to his account is that it would have benefited from a stronger editorial hand. It reads like a travelogue of fascinating insights and hopeful perspectives. There is bravery in seeing what could have been done differently. There is also a fresh sense of delight in the exploration of sacramentality and of apostolicity.
Embodiment is a recurring metaphor that enables Taylor to write frankly about innovation and about death. A table of longevity for ten “first expressions” logs the valiant status of four died, two tried, two reborn, one three-year duration, and one alive. I found the bravery of embracing this element of transience both honest and challenging.
That tally indicates a courageous freedom to be immediate and provisional. But it also challenges us to ask about authenticity and depth. It reminds me of what Rowan Williams, as Archbishop of Canterbury, said about Fresh Expressions in the General Synod in February 2007. He described the Church as something “that happens, before it is something that is institutionally organised”. We need to remember that in an era of unprecedented regulation.
And the Archbishop went on to say: “Remember that that is what we’re thinking of, not a series of scattered experiments, not a series of enterprises in religious entertainment, not, God forbid, a kind of dumbing down of the historic faith and its requirements so that more people may get vaguely interested.”
How to celebrate the drama that makes the Church present as the intersection between time and eternity is a challenge that confronts us ever more starkly in the wake of the coronavirus.
What is “the happening” that brings us incontrovertibly into communion with Jesus Christ? First Expressions challenges us to assess how we make this a shared experience, one that belongs to this time and place in such a way as to connect us with every time and place.
Taylor’s subtitle — innovation and the mission of God — invites us to lay hold of the wisdom, knowledge, and imagination by which we might articulate afresh the mystery of Jesus Christ, who is the same yesterday, today, and for ever.
Dr Martin Warner is the Bishop of Chichester.
First Expressions: Innovations and the mission of God
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